It’s been quite a while since I last visited the Israel Museum and, to tell the truth, I would not normally have chosen an afternoon in late August, during the school holidays, when the museum opens its doors free to children. However, a guided tour of the exhibition “King Herod’s Final Journey”, organized by the Jerusalem District Committee of the Israel Bar Association, was too good to miss. The exhibition, the most expensive and carefully planned in the Museum’s history, was originally envisaged by the late Prof. Ehud Netzer, who discovered the long-sought-for tomb of Herod the Great in 2007, on the man-made mountain which bears the name of that most controversial of Judaean monarchs, Herodium (or Herodion).
Situated on the edge of the Judaean Desert, south of Jerusalem and east of Bethlehem, Herodium is clearly visible from my living room window.
The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Prof. Netzer, who was fatally injured in 2010, when a railing at the dig site gave way and he fell 6 metres, suffering head and neck injuries. He died three days later.
It is perfectly possible, said our guide, to see the entire exhibition in half an hour, but, she added, she could talk for three hours about King Herod. And she did – almost. She had brought with her a copy of Josephus’s “The Jewish War”, from which she read, with great histrionic talent, relevant passages, describing Herod’s cruelty, his crimes and his exceedingly unpleasant death from an unnamed illness (which, according to her, was probably syphilis – although many other theories have been advanced).
Not all the exhibits came from Herodium. The exhibition is planned as if the visitor is following the route of Herod’s funeral cortege, from the throne-room at his winter palace in Jericho, through the Judaean desert to Jerusalem. On the way, we are shown relics from other archaeological sites connected with the King, who was famous, amongst other things, for his building projects, the best-known of which was the Temple Mount Complex in Jerusalem.
Herod did not build the Second Temple. That was carried out by the Jews who returned from the Babylonian Exile, under Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah. However, this Temple was small and built entirely of wood, unlike its magnificent predecessor, built by King Solomon. So, whether to placate his Jewish subjects, who did not take kindly to the rule of the usurper forced upon them by the Romans, or whether for his own aggrandizement, Herod conducted a massive programme of renovation which, to all intents and purposes, involved pulling down and completely rebuilding the Temple Complex. In order to do so, Herod’s architects and builders doubled the size of the Temple Mount by means of a massive landfill, which was supported by huge retaining walls. The wall we know today as the Western (or Wailing) Wall is, in fact, one of these retaining walls. Deprived of the right to pray on the Temple Mount itself, by successive occupying powers, and now denied that right even by the Israeli Government, so as not to provoke the Muslims, over the centuries, the Western Wall became the focus of a nation’s prayers.
Photography is forbidden at the exhibition, but there was one exhibit I simply had to photograph – a stone bearing the inscription: “To the place of blowing the trumpet” (לבית התקיעה - lebeit hatkiyah). This stone was discovered at the corner of the Western and Southern Walls of the Temple Mount, exactly where it was hurled by the Romans, when they destroyed the Temple two thousand years ago. And what was this “Place of blowing the trumpet”?
Our sages tell us that, on the eve of the Sabbath, one of the priests would sound six blasts on the shofar, to give notice of the impending start of the Day of Rest. First, he would blow once, to give sufficient warning to the workers in the fields that the Sabbath was approaching so as to enable them to get home in time for the Sabbath. After a lapse of time, he would sound the horn once again, to alert the shopkeepers and others living and working in the city that it was time to shut up shop and head for home, to prepare to welcome the Sabbath. The third blast of the shofar was to let the women know that the time had come to cease their housework and prepare to light the Sabbath candles. Shortly after this, the priest would sound Tekiyah, Teruah, Tekiyah in succession to announce the start of the Sabbath.
In many towns and villages in modern Israel, which are far too large for a single shofar to be effective, the approach of the Sabbath was announced by sirens. But lately, this custom has become less and less common, probably because of the psychological effect of the noise of air raid sirens on citizens who have, of late, had to become all too used to the sound which most of them now associate with incoming missile attacks from our delightful neighbours, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and Hezbollah in the Lebanon.
At any rate, prohibition or no, I could not resist photographing this proof of the existence of a Jewish Temple on the site of the Temple Mount, especially in light of the current Muslim myth denying the existence of any Jewish presence there.
The highlight of the exhibition is the reconstruction of the Mausoleum itself. This monument to Herod’s hubris was smashed to pieces, apparently by the Zealots who captured Herodium during the Great Revolt (66-70 C.E.) and wanted to erase all memory of the hated ruler.
Even without the prohibition of photography at the exhibition, it would have been impossible to get a clear shot of the reconstructed tomb, due to the sheer numbers of visitors milling around, so the pictures you are now going to see, of the mausoleum and the royal sarcophagus, are not my own.
By the time the guided tour ended, it was almost 8 pm. With an hour to go until closing time, I decided to go and see an exhibition constructed around the “Gabriel Stone“, so called because it describes an apocalyptic vision of an attack on Jerusalem, in which God appears, accompanied by angels, chief of whom is Gabriel, to save the city.
Arranged around the stone are ancient Christian and Muslim manuscripts, all relating to the Archangel Gabriel, who plays an important role in both these religions. For Christians, it is Gabriel who appeared to the Virgin Mary and predicted the birth of her son, Jesus. For Muslims, it was Gabriel (or Jibril, as he is known in Arabic) who revealed the word of Allah to the Prophet Muhammed.
This is quite a small exhibit, so, after that, I made my way to the Youth Wing of the museum, where our guide had recommended an exhibit entitled “Illusions”, or ArTricks. This was an exhibit devoted to optical illusions and included works by Escher, an infinite mirror, a “painting” of a bird falling into water so realistic, you can actually see the splash as it hits the water’s surface, and Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s light and shadow display, of discarded pieces of wood, arranged in such a way that when a light projector is placed behind it, the shadow of a young man appears on the wall.
Illusion occurs when the brain “corrects” the image transmitted by the eye on the basis of its past experiences and memories, thus creating the illusion that the image we perceive actually exists in reality. (Perhaps herein lies the explanation for some of the defamatory and outrageously false statements made about Israel by her detractors. They believe what they want to believe, see what they expect to see, in light of their already existing prejudices.)
When I left the museum at about twenty to nine, people were still arriving! That includes parents with children in push-chairs. And, much as I hated the crowds, it gives me a wonderful feeling to know that, in Israel, among the People of the Book, families still feel that an outing to a museum is a cool thing to do during the summer vacation
Shabbat Shalom to you all from Jerusalem.